Tuilaepa’s 'bikini' comments sexist and unacceptable

It appears the caretaker Prime Minister is working through a hit list of everyday working people to attack and blame for his political misfortunes.

Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi had been bagging the Judiciary and its esteemed members of the bench for a while in recent weeks, prior to that it was the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) membership, but today it is the “junior female lawyers” whom he accused of “wearing bikinis and mini [skirts] to court.”

Details of the caretaker Prime Ministering attacking the female lawyers were published in the Thursday 22 July 2021 edition of the Samoa Observer (Women lawyers stupid, in miniskirts: Tuilaepa).

Speaking during his weekly programme on TV3 on Wednesday night, Tuilaepa attacked the country’s new generation of lawyers and described them as “stupid, cheeky and disrespectful”, while urging their senior colleagues to address the behaviour of the “newbies”.

"If you see them at court, they show up without combing their hair...with unkempt hair," said Tuilaepa. 

"They wear bikinis and minis...something you don't see anywhere else in the world. 

“[But] there is a dress code and they [female lawyers] should dress properly and be decent and respectful when they go to court, to honor the judges and the people of the country."

In thriving democracies around the world, there would be a public uproar if a caretaker Prime Minister, let alone a Prime Minister of a government, made such sexist and condescending comments directed at women.

But this is Samoa and there has been a tendency over the years to raise and lower the bar in terms of leaders’ conduct and holding them accountable by the various actors including non-government organisations and international bodies.

So it didn’t surprise us that there was deafening silence Thursday morning from the various organisations, who have a big footprint in the gender empowerment space in Samoa, and like using the names of the citizenry every year to secure more donor funding for their programmes, whose very objectives continue to be the subject of public ridicule by politicians such as Tuilaepa.

Over a fortnight ago the caretaker Prime Minister came out swinging at the various organisations including the United Nations and this newspaper, over what he claimed was a “conspiracy of silence” over comments that his political rival La’auli Leuatea Schmidt purportedly made promoting sexual violence against women of Samoa.

Immediately following Tuilaepa’s criticism, we found out that his comments broadcast through his TV3 weekly program were conjured by himself with the assistance of a reporter, and were based on a misconstrued interpretation of La’auli’s speech made in a separate televised program.

But that didn’t stop Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) member Maiava Visekota Peteru organising and leading a march condemning violence against women two weeks ago, ably supported by party colleagues and former Members Gatoloaifaana Amataga Gidlow, Leota Tima Le'avai and Aliimalemanu Alofa Tuu’au.

Eleven days after the protest march calling for an end to violence against women in Samoa and we are yet to hear from Maiava and her three party colleagues condemning Tuilaepa’s sexist comments.

Thinking aloud, if the organisers of that march two weeks are as proactive as they had claimed to be during the protest march, then all telephones in the various newsrooms in Apia would have been ringing Thursday morning to advise of a press conference by the women leaders to condemn Tuilaepa’s comments.

It is in times like this – when true leadership is shown that leaders with a heart for the people feel compelled to step outside their comfort zone to speak out against the actions of leaders – and hold them to account.

However, it is clear to us where the loyalties of people lie and how they don’t feel compelled to rock the boat, even if it is to come at the expense of fellow citizens such as female lawyers, who are only representing their clients in court proceedings.

So where do we draw the line for a leader who continues to make sexist condescending comments that belittle professional women who deserve to be respected and treated equally like anyone else?

And how can we not see the power dynamics that leaders like Tuilaepa are promoting where if you are on the wrong side of national politics then you are damned and your profession is damned?

It is clear that the successes of the “junior female lawyers” in the various election-related Supreme Court and Appellate Court proceedings – which question the legal authority of his caretaker Government and the powers of the Head of State – must be annoying for the caretaker Prime Minister.

But aren’t we all supposed to celebrate the success of our next generation of lawyers (as well as other working professionals) who are now at the peak of their careers and through their direct involvement in litigation are contributing to the development of Samoan jurisprudence?

Their success in the courtroom would augur well for the nation as they strive to look for a resolution to the four-month long constitutional crisis.

If Tuilaepa doesn’t know then perhaps he should be told that violence against women can by physical, sexual or psychological in nature. Sexist remarks is a form of psychological violence against women and can include name-calling, belittling and constant criticism.

It is unacceptable that the caretaker Prime Minister has stooped so low with his remarks to bring his office into disrepute.

And with the country less than 12 months away from celebrating our 60th independence anniversary, our leaders should start thinking about celebrating our successes while apologising for their failures.

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